The 20 Best Movies at Sundance 2014

Movies Lists Best Movies

A secret project 12 years in the making, a martial-arts film, a movie described as “Full Metal Jacket at Julliard,” and the strange, wonderful figure of Nick Cave. The 2014 Sundance Film Festival produced no lack of surprises. Here are our favorite movies from this year’s edition.

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20. God Help the Girl
As the masterful pop songsmith behind Belle and Sebastian, Stuart Murdoch has always shown a flare for storytelling. His songs are filled with outcasts and rebels eager to take on the world, or at least find a little peace in it. So it’s only natural that his musical film is at once madcap and melancholy. The film is takes place over a summer in which two young women and one young man chase the idea of being in a band. Emily Browning has a magnetic screen presence as a mentally troubled would-be pop sensation trying to figure out what it all means, and Olly Alexander and Hannah Murray serve nicely as her friends. Murdoch sometimes resorts to overly literal representation of his lyrics and isn’t as judicious as he ought to be with cutaway gags. But he has an energetic spark. He imbues the film with pure fun and a sort of nostalgia for the present. Life won’t ever be perfect, but there is perhaps a moment of perfection just waiting to be achieved, if only the we would grab it. —J.M.

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19. Life Itself
It’s an easy sell, okay? The life of the late, lamented, beloved film critic Roger Ebert, as written by the man himself and filmed by perhaps our greatest living documentarian, Steve James. But James makes the bold choice to specnd almost as much time in the then-happening present (the last four months of Ebert’s life) as in his glorious past. The result is a little like crawling into Ebert’s mind to recall the entirety of a life well lived, especially with his own words providing much of the voiceover (albeit in the actual voice of Stephen Stanton). It was always going to be hard to produce a film befitting the critical voice of our lifetime, but James has done it. —M.D.

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18. Infinitely Polar Bear
One watches Infinitely Polar Bear and wonders if it was all quite as wistfully challenging as it plays out here. There’s a darkness on the edge of Ruffalo’s performance, but Cameron’s torment is mostly portrayed as a darned nuisance, rarely hinting at the serious ailment that would make Maggie so concerned about leaving her children in his care. With that said, Forbes’s affection for these characters rubs off on the viewer. The film doesn’t bear the sting of poverty that fills every frame of a Sunlight Jr., but it’s wise about the rather remarkable age this family was living through. Unknowingly, the Stuarts are gender-role trailblazers, boasting a mother who will be the main breadwinner and a father who stays at home with the kids. Forbes lived through it, and it’s her prerogative how she wants to tell her story. But in her insistence on finding the happy ending, Infinitely Polar Bear doesn’t find enough of the sadness and pain that would have made such a conclusion earned. —T.G.

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17. Cooties
Horror comedies tend to do one thing well. For the first half of Cooties, that’s most certainly the comedy. Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson and Alison Pill play elementary teachers in a love triangle complicated by the fact that the students are turning into ravenous zombies. As night descends and the threat intensifies, so do the horror elements. The combination works thanks to the writers behind both Glee (Ian Brennan) and Saw (Leigh Whannell), both of whom also steal their scenes as comic actors. —J.J.

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16. Viktoria
This film went under a lot of festival-goers’ radar, perhaps because there’s not a huge audience clamoring for a 155-minute Bulgarian drama that follows a clinically depressed mother through communism’s stifling oppression and eventual fall. But the brave festival-goers who ventured to see it discovered a rich, emotional exploration of stunted spirits. Director Maya Vitkova recalls Tarkovsky with her deep sense of yearning and striking use of fantastical poetic imagery. Yet the film works equally well when it dips into the waters of absurd comedy, as a child grows up with an inflated ego after the country’s propaganda machine turns her birth abnormality into a cause for national celebration. —J.M.

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15. Rich Hill
Rich Hill is everything you don’t expect it to be. It’s a documentary about three struggling, lower-class boys from Rich Hill, Missouri, but it forgoes the typical gritty documebtary look in favor of a sort of meditative poetry. Directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos reach a remarkable level of intimacy with the kids and their families. One scene in particular contains heartbreaking revelations about one of the subjects as he casually talks while walking down the street on Halloween. The movie doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to hard, cold reality, yet it also takes the time to live life with the boys on their own terms — to spend time with them as they try to smash ice puddles or light fireworks. The families depicted aren’t presented merely as anecdotes of how bad life can be. They’re living, breathing people who have had a string of bad luck starting t a very young age. That Rich Hill lets us truly know them is one of the great achievements of Sundance 2014. —J.M.

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14. 20,000 Days on Earth
It’s hard to imagine a more “Nick Cave” Nick Cave doc than 20,000 Days on Earth. Ostensibly a day in the life of the Australian-born musician—his 20,000th day alive—it’s more self-reflective meditation than biography. At turns meditative, intimate, poetic and strange, the film captures Cave talking to his therapist, his bandmates and even a series of ghosts as he travels around his adopted home of Brighton, England. Those ghosts are no longer content to lie in the dark, and this documentary is about, more than anything else, Cave confronting his past as he visits a team working on his archive. But he’s still making music and still living for those moments on stage, trying to terrify the front row. So it’s fitting that the film culminates in a pair of performances, broken up with a quiet moment eating pizza and watching TV with his kids. —J.J.

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13. Hellion
Kat Candler’s Hellion is set in the aftermath of a family losing its matriarch, and no one is handling her death very well. Jacob (Josh Wiggins) is the titular hell-raising pre-teen who takes his younger brother on dangerous adventures in vandalism. Aaron Paul is his grief-stricken father trying desperately to hold the family together. Jacob sees a motocross rally as his chance for some redemption, but this is no heart-warming sports movie. It’s an intimate look at a difficult childhood offering no easy answers, but one that leads you to care deeply about its flawed but sympathetic characters. —J.J.

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12. The Sleepwalker
Perhaps the most daring film in the US Dramatic Competition, Mona Fastvold’s The Sleepwalker is an elliptical, borderline surreal study of childhood trauma and repressed memories. Director Fastvold lets the story simmer as the action builds in and around a secluded, half-renovated house in the woods. Ingenious use of sound design and atmospheric score drive the psychological turmoil as the film slowly reveals what the characters have been through. Actors Gitte Witt, Stephanie Ellis Christopher Abbott and Brady Corbet (who co-wrote the screenplay with Fastvold) create a mounting feeling of tension as odd behavior, inappropriate dinner stories and poor manners bring out everyone’s madness. —J.M.

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11. Ida
Ida is a compelling examination of how the past shapes us, even when we don’t know anything about it. Pawel Pawlikowski’s quiet Polish film takes place in the 1960s, when World War II has ended, yet still has the power to grip people’s lives. In the title role, Agata Trzebuchowska brings the perfect mixture of naiveté and curiosity to the part of a nun-in-training who learns that her family was Jewish and killed during Nazi occupation. She embarks on an odyssey to find their graves with her cynical, alcoholic aunt (Agata Kulesza), who used to be a prosecutor for the communist government. The relationship between the two characters grows more and more complex as they go deeper down the rabbit hole. Shot in black-and-white and academy ratio (1.37:1), Ida uses its frame to distinct effect, often framing characters in the lower third of the screen (so much so that in a couple scenes, the subtitles have to go up above their heads). The effect can be unsettling, but intriguing. That space could contain the watchful power of Ida’s lord, but it could also be nothing more than an empty void. After a life of certitude, Ida has to decide for herself. —J.M.

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10. Whiplash
Even if Whiplash falters from time to time, the performances never do. Teller again shows his ability to play an outsider who’s not a stereotypical rebel or misfit but someone with great sensitivity and surprising anger. Quietly, Teller starts to reveal the depth of Andrew’s desperation, not just to become a world-class drummer but also to escape his father’s career failure and to prove to Fletcher that he’s got what it takes to succeed. Simmons is a fine complement in a far showier role. Fletcher is a little too maniacal and abusive to be completely believable—he’s more a convenient representation of artistic obstacles than a fully fleshed-out antagonist—but Simmons mitigates that problem by giving Fletcher an uncompromising steeliness. The character may be a dramatic exaggeration, but his intensity is such that he becomes a force of nature, albeit a somewhat one-dimensional one.—T.G.

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9. Happy Christmas
Happy Christmas generates such warmth that you might not mind that one of its principal characters doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Writer-director Joe Swanberg’s latest is agreeably loose-limbed, touching on family and the crucial differences between people in their 20s and their 30s. And although it lacks a great thematic hook like Swanberg’s recent Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas still boasts plenty of modest pleasures thanks to its gentle observations and likable manner. —T.G.

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8. A Most Wanted Man
The typical critical clichés used to praise thrillers are overused expressions like “pulse-pounding” or “a white-knuckle ride.” The superb A Most Wanted Man can’t be described with those adjectives, but that’s because director Anton Corbijn’s film is colder and more cerebral—and yet, when the film reaches its final stretches, it’s extraordinarily gripping. The film’s confident tonal control is a compliment to Corbijn’s skill, but it’s also recognition of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s wonderfully controlled central performance. You don’t realize how stunning the whole experience really was until it’s over. —T.G.

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7. Blind
Blind combines the inventive freedom of the French New Wave, the emotional complexity of a great novel and the dirty mind of a 14-year-old kid. Ellen Dorrit Petersen plays Ingrid, a woman who copes with the loss of her eyesight by secluding herself in her apartment and writing salacious fiction that morphs into fantasies of what her husband does when she’s not around. The film isn’t just about insecurities and hangups, but how we can deal with those hangups through creatitve invention. Norwegian director Eskil Vogt brilliantly blurs the lines between reality and imagination, simultaneously studying the creative process and the struggle for visualization when you can no longer see. Real life events seamlessly give way to Ingrid’s latest writing, and it’s amazing how smoothly we can go from a real conversation between Ingrid and her husband to a fake online chat between him and a girl who doesn’t exist. When Ingrid reworks the details as she’s writing, or starts to sort out her emotional issues on the page, it makes for some truly lively cinema. —J.M.

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6. Song One
In her first major role since winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for_ Les Misérables_, Anne Hathaway gets back in touch with her indie side for Song One, a modest but affecting drama that finds her delivering a gentle performance that contains none of the melodramatic fireworks of Fantine. Writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland’s feature debut about a woman reconnecting with her brother through his songwriting idol has a delicate, melancholy tone that’s fragile but strong enough to sustain this minor-key tale. —T.G.

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5. Love is Strange
First of all, let’s get something straight—this isn’t “the gay marriage movie.” It’s much more than that. The things that make the movie great would have been great in a movie about two women, or a man and a woman, or a man and an alien for that matter. And above all, what makes the movie great are two utterly stunning naturalistic performances by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, possibly the two best performances of any Sundance film. Even if the film had nothing else to recommend it, it’d be worth watching for these two alone. But oh, what more it does have to offer. Ira Sachs has a gentle touch as a director, and it shows in all the great performances he gets, and in the heartfelt storytelling that results. Marisa Tomei would easily be the standout in nearly any other Sundance film. But as it is she’ll have to settle for being one more perfect little piece ion Sachs’ beautiful mosaic. —M.D.

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4. The Skeleton Twins
OK, I’ll admit it. I thought the hype around this film coming into Sundance was because everybody loved Saturday Night Live twins Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig so much that they’d overfluff an average movie. What I didn’t notice was that the film was directed (and co-written) by Craig Johnson, the man behind the underrated indie True Adolescents. Even had I realized that, I’m not sure i would have been prepared for what I saw — two fantastic performances from actors who had never really moved me before, a fantastic script that deservedly won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the end of the week, a couple of brilliant supporting turns from Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell, and a film with a heart as big as the moon, about two messed-up people just trying to get by. The characters move into and out of likeability, but the movie never does. —M.D.

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3. Calvary
It’s hard out there for a priest. The clerical collar and cassock of the Roman Catholic Church once represented morality, self-sacrifice and humble wisdom. But for many, it now calls to mind decades of child molestation and coverups. Brendan Gleeson’s character in Calvary is a good priest, but that doesn’t do anything for his small Irish town’s dwindling faith. In fact, his goodness is exactly what makes him such a great target, according to the man who threatens to murder him in the film’s extraordinary opening scene. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh uses that promise not to start a mystery story, but to make a contemplative film about faith, family, integrity and doubt, wrapped around the same biting humor that graced his first feature film, The Guard (2011). Calvary is a moving film thanks to its rich, distinct characters, but its power lies in its subtle details and existential turmoil. —J.M.

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2. The Raid 2
When Sundance announced the running time for The Raid 2 at 148 minutes, there was plenty of reason to be concerned. The original was a rambunctious, incredibly violent, utterly giddy action movie—but at 100 minutes, it was also overlong. How much more pummeling was this sequel going to be? Quite a lot, actually, but the happy revelation of The Raid 2 is how writer-director Gareth Evans has used that extra time to expand the scope and geography of the first film. More an elaborate crime thriller than a straight-ahead martial-arts flick, The Raid 2 finds our hero Rama (Iko Uwais) going undercover to infiltrate a feared mob boss’s inner sanctum. Electrifying both in its ambition and its action sequences—there’s a car chase in this movie that may be the finest of the 21st century so far—this is the best action-thriller since The Dark Knight, and also the best sequel since then. —T.G.

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1. Boyhood
Of all the achievements in Richard Linklater’s career, perhaps what he will be best remembered for is his depiction of time. Dazed and Confused chronicled teenage life with precision, but his Before trilogy showed how the passage of time shapes and changes people in ways that they can’t see, precisely because they’re on the inside, lacking the necessary perspective easily available to us on the outside. Now with Linklater’s new movie, Boyhood, time is examined in a new, incredibly moving way. As is Linklater’s custom, Boyhood is profound in such a casual way that its weighty themes feel nonchalant, effortless. This movie might make you cry for reasons you can’t quite articulate. You won’t be alone in feeling that way. Because of the ambition of the project and the amount of years it covers, Boyhood might initially seem underwhelming. By design, Mason’s life isn’t particularly momentous, and there are no major revelations or twists. Instead, everything that happens is a matter of gradation—say, for example, how Mason begins to develop an interest in art or how his mother’s partners start to repeat similar patterns of behavior. These moments aren’t commented on—they’re simply observed—and one of Boyhood’s great attributes is its generous spirit. Linklater, who also wrote the script, doesn’t care about indulging in soap-opera melodrama to elevate the drama because he’s too busy being jazzed by the casual flow of life. There’s enough going on with most people that he doesn’t need to invent incidents. —T.G.

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